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Budget math: Is too much 'off the table' to really fix US deficit?

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In fact, as lawmakers left Wednesday's meeting members of both parties struck an optimistic tone about the progress being made. The group is meeting at a stepped-up pace (it will gather again Thursday, for its third meeting of the week) with the goal of setting a framework for legislation by July 4.

Still, because some key elements of the budget aren't in play, it appears likely that the resulting legislation will be a partial solution to fiscal troubles. To truly put the national debt on a track of stabilization or decline, those "off the table" elements will almost certainly need to be part of the solution.

Here's a glimpse of the math: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the national debt currently account for nearly half of all federal spending –and that total is poised to grow substantially if no changes are made. They are comparable to the role that housing, health care, and retirement plans play in the typical family budget.

President Obama's bipartisan fiscal commission proposed last year that the government should aim to cut projected federal deficits by about $4 trillion over the next decade. Independent advocates of fiscal responsibility have embraced that goal as roughly the amount needed to halt the rapid growth of public debt and maintain investor confidence in the US economy.

For context, even after making $4 trillion in headway the US would still run deficits totaling perhaps $5 trillion over the next 10 years, but the deficit problem would decline when viewed as a share of the overall economy.

Say you wanted to achieve that whole $4 trillion in progress through spending cuts, without touching Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid. That would require major cuts, probably on the order of 15 percent, to all other parts of the budget.

That "other" part of the budget includes domestic discretionary programs, defense, and miscellaneous spending programs (such as farm subsidies) that Congress has made mandatory rather than subject to annual appropriations. All this spending is projected by the Congressional Budget Office to total some $21 trillion over the next decade.

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